Black Chalk, Christopher J. Yates’s debut novel, is at first glance deceptively simple: one game of increasingly humiliating dares, six Oxford students and £10,000 at stake. However, it soon becomes apparent that something altogether more complex is at play, as one player winds up dead and romantic intrigue and humiliation drive the group of friends apart.
Back in the present, the narrator, in a twist that even the most eagle-eyed reader would have difficulty spotting, is still confined to a hermetic existence in his New York apartment years after the Game has ended. Or so it appears, when an unexpected phone call reveals otherwise.
Yates’s slick double narrative jumps with ease across the Atlantic and into 1990s Oxford. Chad, the American, wide-eyed pig farmer’s son, is desperate to integrate himself into university life at Pitt College, when he meets the charismatic and enigmatic Jolyon. Yates paints a beautifully evocative picture of Oxford, where one lives submerged in ‘a sea of Oscar Wildes’, takes mid-afternoon breaks for Hemingway daiquiris and discusses Chomsky until the small hours. These decidedly Brideshead-esque descriptions of student life draw upon Yates’s own time as a student while establishing him as sort of successor to, and moderniser of, the Oxford literary tradition. Thankfully, the characters’ sharp humour and witty dialogue, albeit too often forced, prevent the novel slipping into mawkish nostalgia.
The novel’s post-Cold War setting further distances it from idealised portrayals of the city of dreaming spires, rooting it instead in an atmosphere fraught with secrecy and paranoia. The social exclusivity the Game once afforded the friends instead becomes claustrophobic. This is perhaps most manifest in the mysterious ‘Game Soc’, the organisation under whose auspices the Game’s forfeits become progressively high-risk and personal. The presence of its members, known simply as ‘Largest’, ‘Middle’ and ‘Tallest’ hangs over the novel, but is one that is sadly underdeveloped as the initially intriguing society fades sheepishly into the background.
This lack of character development unfortunately recurs throughout the novel. The friendship group, with its wildly disparate characters, felt largely unbelievable. One tried to imagine what genuine interest witty polymath Jolyon and the beautiful Emilia would have in the juvenile Jack and colourless Chad. Though Yates’s dialogue is certainly sharp, it too often wavered between being too clever for its own good or decidedly cheesy: “I put the stud into study”. The group’s banter didn’t serve to create a convincing impression of friendship, feeling instead staged and self-conscious.
Consequently, in a Lord of the Flies-like scenario, where the friends begin turn on one another, one is hard-pressed to feel overwhelming emotion. Even the death of one member of the group feels unconnected to the Game, and we begin to wonder what the meaning, or even point, of the Game is at all. Though Yates’s double narrative is compelling and certainly ambitious for a first-time novelist, it increasingly fails to unite the two storylines. This has the effect of diminishing the tension without really building it up again. The present-tense narrator claims that ‘I don’t want to interrupt the past with the present’; but this only begs the question why he continually chooses to do so, much to the reader’s chagrin.
Black Chalk initially promises a great deal and certainly delivers on some counts. Yates shows some nice touches in his subtle foreshadowing and impressive concealment of plot twists. However, these moments are interspersed with writing that is frequently unconvincing or psychologically shallow; the holed-up narrator in the present tense can become repetitive while the characters appear to work towards Yates’s pre-plotted outcomes as opposed to smoothly meandering their way to their natural outcomes. The Game itself is concluded in a surprisingly abrupt manner, undermining, to some extent, Yates’s skilful deployment of enigma and secrecy. I would certainly recommend Black Chalk as a decent thriller, but not a great one. There are certainly encouraging marks of potential, however, and I eagerly anticipate Yates’s future work.
Photograph:Cameron Small via Flickr
Black Chalk was published by Harvill Secker